What are Some Common Mistakes in Titling Real Property?

Title to real property must be transferred, when the asset is sold and must be cleared (free of liens or encumbrances) for the transfer to occur. Unlike other real property assets, real estate ownership can take several forms. Each of these forms has implications on how ownership can be transferred and can affect how they can be financed, improved or used as collateral.

Investopedia’s article, “5 Common Methods of Holding Titles on Real Property,” looks at the ways in which to hold title to real estate property.

Joint Tenancy. This is when two or more people hold title to real estate jointly, with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. When one dies, their rights of ownership pass to the surviving tenant(s). The parties in the ownership need not be married or related, but any financing or use of the property for financial gain must be approved by all parties and cannot be transferred by will after one passes. Another disadvantage is that a creditor with a legal judgment to collect a debt from one of the owners, can also petition the court to divide the property and force a sale in order to collect on the judgment.

Tenancy In Common. In this situation, two or more persons hold title to real estate jointly with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. However, unlike joint tenancy, tenants in common hold title individually for their respective part of the property and can dispose of or encumber as they chose. Ownership can be willed to other parties, and in the event of death, ownership will transfer to that owner’s heirs undivided. An owner can use the wealth created by their portion of the property, as collateral for financial transactions, and creditors can place liens only against one owner’s specific portion of the property. Any liens must be cleared for a total transfer of ownership to take place.

Tenants by Entirety. This can only be used, when the owners are legally married. This is ownership in real estate under the assumption that the couple is one person for legal purposes. The title transfers to the other in entirety, if one of the couple dies. The advantage is that no legal action is required at the death of a spouse. There’s no need for a will, and probate or other legal action isn’t necessary. Conveyance of the property must be done in total, and the property can’t be subdivided. In the case of divorce, the property converts to a tenancy in common, and one owner can transfer ownership of their respective part of the property to whomever they want.

Sole Ownership. This is ownership by an individual or entity legally capable of holding title. The main advantage to holding title as a sole owner, is the ease with which transactions can be accomplished, since no other party needs to authorize the transaction. The disadvantage is the potential for legal issues regarding the transfer of ownership, if the sole owner dies or become incapacitated. Unless there’s a will, the transfer of ownership upon death can be an issue.

Community Property. This form of ownership is by husband and wife during their marriage for property they intend to own together. Under community property, either spouse has the right to dispose of one half of the property or will it to another party. Anyone who’s lived with another person as a common-law spouse and doesn’t specifically change title to the property as sole ownership (which is legally transacted with approval by the significant other) takes the risk of having to share ownership of the property, in the absence of a legal marriage.

Community Property With the Right of Survivorship. This is a way for married couples to hold title to property. However, it is only available in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin. It lets one spouse’s interest in community-property assets pass probate-free to the surviving spouse, in the event of death.

Entities other than individuals can hold title to real estate in its entirety. Ownership in real estate can be done as a corporation. The legal entity is a company owned by shareholders but regarded under the law as having an existence separate from those shareholders. Real estate can also be owned as a partnership, which is an association of two or more people to carry on business for profit as co-owners. Real estate also can be owned by a trust. These legal entities own the properties and are managed by a trustee on behalf of the beneficiaries. There are many benefits, such as managerial influence, financial and legal liability and tax considerations.

Reference: Investopedia (April 10, 2018) “5 Common Methods of Holding Titles on Real Property”

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What Are the Minimum Legal Documents a Farmer or Family Business Owner Must Have?

There are five fundamental estate planning documents that every farmer, family business owner, or every adult, should have prepared and properly executed. They are clearly outlined in the article “Five documents every farmer should have” from Ag Week. However, as reported as recently as January 2019 from AARP, six of 10 seniors don’t have a will. The number of farmers who lack an estate plan is fewer, and probably even less have advance care directives. This is not good for them or their families.

Farm and ranch families often find themselves facing complicated issues about how the land should be divided among the next generation, and whether the next generation will continue to maintain the ranch or farm. This is something that estate planning addresses.

Many people think of the will as the estate plan. However, it is only part of the plan. The will says who will inherit property, including assets and debts, and who will be responsible for carrying out your directions. That person is the executor, who acts as your agent when you have died.

While there are online wills available, it is recommended that farm and ranch families work with an estate planning attorney. They are encouraged to meet with a few, until they find one who they are comfortable with and they believe has the experience that suits the family’s situation. The attorney will help with how property is titled and how to handle the tax implications. These are both important parts of an estate plan.

Every adult needs an advance health care directive, the legal document that specifies the medical procedures that they want to maintain life, if there is a health crisis. An advance directive usually involves a living will, and names a person as health care power of attorney to make health care decisions, when you are unable to do so for yourself.

The living will is used to specify the types of medical procedures you do or do not wish to have performed to keep you alive. Medical professionals or first responders often do not have access to this document and must follow their legal and ethical requirement to maintain life, in any way possible. Make sure this document is readily available and that other family members know where it is located.

Provide a copy of the living will and durable power of attorney to your doctors and the institutions that usually provide your care. The power of attorney should specify who has primary responsibility to make these decisions and at least one alternate.

Talk with your physicians about your feelings and wishes for these documents. They may also benefit from having the person you have named as your power of attorney with you at the time of the conversation. That way everyone is clear about what your wishes are.

A power of attorney is given to an individual, your agent, who can make financial decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. They can write checks, make deposits and have access to your safe deposit box. There will be forms to fill out, so don’t delay having them created and properly executed.

While it is not legally enforceable, write a letter of intention to accompany your will. Give a copy of your letter to your executor, and possibly to a trusted family member. This way, you can make sure they know:

  • Where important documents, including life insurance policies, savings accounts, loans, leases, titles to property and other legal documents are located.
  • Instructions for the care of minor children. Your will should name a guardian, but any information you can share about your children will be helpful.
  • Instructions of what you want to happen to the family land.

The more information you can prepare and provide for your survivors, the more likely your wishes will be carried out. It can also be psychologically soothing to know that you have communicated and legally documented your wishes for those who live after you.

Reference: Ag Week (April 5, 2019) “Five documents every farmer should have”

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What Will Happen If I’m In An Accident?

Expensive and rising healthcare costs can’t be a surprise to those nearing or in retirement. However, something that’s not often discussed, is how unexpected medical and related expenses from accidents can have a devastating impact on investment accounts, particularly for younger adults.

It’s estimated that 3.14 million Americans were involved in an auto accident in 2016, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. This shows how common they are.

Think Advisor’s recent article, “How Car Accidents Can Wreck Retirement Accounts,” looks at the case of a 35-year-old single professional with more than $600,000 in her investment account.

This woman, Sue, was driving home from work, when an uninsured motorist ran a traffic light and ran into her new convertible. The car was totaled, and she was severely injured. Sue was rushed to the hospital, required surgery for several broken bones and then went to a rehab facility for physical therapy upon her release.

Fortunately, Sue’s medical coverage from work covered her hospitalization, rehab stay and at-home visits during her recovery. Sue’s own auto insurance policy paid for a new car. However, Sue was unable to work for a year. Her employer-paid short-term disability insurance that covered about 65% of her lost income for three months, but she had no long-term coverage and had to pay some health-related expenses out of pocket. In total, Sue lost $120,000 in income, had to pay $10,000 in medical expenses not covered by her plan, and spent $65,000 for at-home assistance during her recuperation.

Luckily, she had savings outside her investment accounts that covered those expenses. However, there are many other accident victims who aren’t as fortunate as Sue. They must use investments that may have been intended for their children’s education and their retirement. The result is paying penalties for tapping into qualified accounts.

Sue didn’t tap into her investments. However, she did have to stop making contributions to her qualified accounts and adding to her other investments. Because the accident occurred during her prime earning years, the compounded effect on her nest egg will be significant.

In addition, Sue could’ve avoided the loss of income and the out-of-pocket expenses, if she’d been covered by a more comprehensive auto insurance policy and purchased additional disability insurance.

Review your coverages and your entire estate plan with a knowledgeable attorney to be certain you have the best protection.

Reference: Think Advisor (March 26, 2019) “How Car Accidents Can Wreck Retirement Accounts”

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Do My Debts Die with Me?

When you die, your debts do not. Your executor will be required to pay them using your assets. That means that any unpaid debt can reduce the wealth you’ve left behind for your heirs. In some cases, your family members could even need to pay your debt.

Reader’s Digest’s recent article, “This Is What Happens to Your Debt When You Die,” explains that not all debt is created equal. With secured debt, like a mortgage or car loans, your estate can either pay off your debts in full or continue making installment payments. Another option is to sell the property or turn it over to the lender to satisfy the debt.

However, any unsecured debt, such as credit cards, bills, or personal loans, is typically just paid from the estate. The estate is everything you own, such as assets, bank accounts, real estate and other property.

Note that student loans are the exception, but there are some caveats. Most federal student loans, along with private loans without a cosigner, are discharged with proof of death. Thus, your heirs won’t be responsible for those loans. However, if your private student loan was cosigned, that person will be required to pay it off. There are also some loans, like PLUS loans, that while technically forgiven, could leave the parent who took it out with higher taxes.

The way to protect both yourself and your family, is to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to get your affairs in order.

Creating an action plan for your outstanding debt is a critical component of the estate planning process. You also need to ask about other end-of-life plans, like medical directives, wills and trusts to manage your assets, when you pass away.

You should also review your life insurance policy to make certain that it’s up-to-date, and don’t forget to review your named beneficiaries.

If your beneficiaries are assigned correctly, some of your assets may bypass probate and be protected from creditors. Therefore, anyone who’s listed on your policy won’t be forced to hand over their money to satisfy your debt.

Reference: Reader’s Digest “This Is What Happens to Your Debt When You Die”

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How Do I Plan for a Blended Family?

A blended family (or stepfamily) can be thought of as the result of two or more people forming a life together (married or not) that includes children from one or both of their previous relationships, says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a recent article, “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late.”

Research from the Pew Research Center study reveals a high remarriage rate for those 55 and older—67% between the ages 55 and 64 remarry. Some of the high remarriage percentage may be due to increasing life expectancies or the death of a spouse. In addition, divorces are increasing for older people who may have decided that, with the children grown, they want to go their separate ways.

It’s important to note that although 50% of first marriages end in divorce, that number jumps to 67% of second marriages and 80% of third marriages end in divorce.

So if you’re remarrying, you should think about starting out with a prenuptial agreement. This type of agreement is made between two people prior to marriage. It sets out rights to property and support, in case there’s a divorce or death. Both parties must reveal their finances. This is really helpful, when each may have different income sources, assets and expenses.

You should discuss whose name will be on the deed to your home, which is often the asset with the most value, as well as the beneficiary designations of your life insurance policies, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts.

It is also important to review the agents under your health care directives and financial powers of attorney. Ask yourself if you truly want your stepchildren in any of these agent roles, which may include “pulling the plug” or ending life support.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about these important documents that you’ll need, when you say “I do” for the second (or third) time.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 24, 2019) “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late”

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How Do I Incorporate Charitable Giving into My Estate Plan?

When looking into charitable giving, it can easily become overwhelming with all of the references to tax codes, regulations and forms. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make this a simple part of your estate planning.

The Press & Guide’s recent article, “Estate planning and charitable giving,” explains that there are a number of ways to incorporate charitable giving into an estate plan.  It is something that almost anyone can do. Let’s look at some common ways to give:

Giving in your will. When hearing about charitable giving and estate planning, many people may get intimidated by estate taxes. They think their heirs will not get as much of their money, as they wanted. However, including a charitable contribution in your estate plan will reduce your estate tax liabilities—helping to maximize the final value of your estate for your heirs. Talk to your estate attorney and ensure that your donation is detailed properly in your will.

Donating your retirement account. You can name a charity as the beneficiary on your retirement account. Charities are exempt from both income and estate taxes, so going this route means the charity will receive 100% of the account’s value, when it’s liquidated.

Creating a charitable trust. A charitable trust is another way to give back through estate planning. You can ask your attorney about a split-interest trust that allows a person to donate their assets to a charity but keep some of the benefits of holding those assets. A split-interest trust funds a trust in the charity’s name. Those who open one, get a tax deduction any time money is transferred into the trust. However, the donors still control the assets in the trust, which is passed to the charity at the time of their deaths.

Charitable giving is an important component of many people’s estate plan. There are several options for charitable trusts, so speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to help you select the best one for you, your family and the charities you want to support.

Reference: (Southgate MI) Press & Guide (January 27, 2019) “Estate planning and charitable giving”

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Why Is a Revocable Trust So Valuable in Estate Planning?

There’s quite a bit that a trust can do to solve big estate planning and tax problems for many families.

As Forbes explains in its recent article, “Revocable Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife Of Financial Planning,” trusts are a critical component of a proper estate plan. There are three parties to a trust: the owner of some property (settler or grantor) turns it over to a trusted person or organization (trustee) under a trust arrangement to hold and manage for the benefit of someone (the beneficiary). A written trust document will spell out the terms of the arrangement.

One of the most useful trusts is a revocable trust (inter vivos) where the grantor creates a trust, funds it, manages it by herself, and has unrestricted rights to the trust assets (corpus). The grantor has the right at any point to revoke the trust, by simply tearing up the document and reclaiming the assets, or perhaps modifying the trust to accomplish other estate planning goals.

After discussing trusts with your attorney, he or she will draft the trust document and re-title property to the trust. The assets transferred to a revocable trust can be reclaimed at any time. The grantor has unrestricted rights to the property. During the life of the grantor, the trust provides protection and management, if and when it’s needed.

Let’s examine the potential lifetime and estate planning benefits that can be incorporated into the trust:

  • Lifetime Benefits. If the grantor is unable or uninterested in managing the trust, the grantor can hire an investment advisor to manage the account in one of the major discount brokerages, or he can appoint a trust company to act for him.
  • Incapacity. A trusted spouse, child, or friend can be named to care for and represent the needs of the grantor/beneficiary. She will manage the assets during incapacity, without having to declare the grantor incompetent and petitioning for a guardianship. After the grantor has recovered, she can resume the duties as trustee.
  • This can be a stressful legal proceeding that makes the grantor a ward of the state. This proceeding can be expensive, public, humiliating, restrictive and burdensome. However, a well-drafted trust (along with powers of attorney) avoids this.

The revocable trust is a great tool for estate planning because it bypasses probate, which can mean considerably less expense, stress and time.

In addition to a trust, ask your attorney about the rest of your estate plan: a will, powers of attorney, medical directives and other considerations.

Any trust should be created by a very competent trust attorney, after a discussion about what you want to accomplish.

Reference: Forbes (February 20, 2019) “Revocable Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife Of Financial Planning”

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What Are the New Rules for Veterans’ Benefits?

Veterans rejected for disability benefits will have new options for appeals. This is because federal officials are implementing an overhaul of the review process, with the objective of significantly reducing wait times for complicated cases.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced last month that it will implement new appeals modernization rules starting in mid-February. The changes have been in the works for more than 18 months, since lawmakers passed sweeping reform legislation on the topic in the summer of 2017.

Veterans will now be provided with three streamlined options for their benefits appeals, reports the Military Times in the article “VA’s benefits appeals process will see a dramatic changeover next month.”

The VA is now hoping that the most difficult reviews can still be finished in less than a year in most cases. The target for cases that don’t go before the Board of Veterans Appeals is an average of about four months for a final decision.

A successful appeal can result in thousands of dollars in monthly benefits payouts for veterans who’ve previously been turned down, for what they believe are service-connected injuries and illnesses.

“(This) is the most significant reform in veterans’ appeals processing in a generation and promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of decisions for our nation’s veterans,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.

Veterans groups primarily support the appeals changes, but some have expressed concerns about the new system limiting veterans’ options for future reviews, in favor of getting faster resolutions.

Parts of the new process were implemented as pilot programs at select sites in recent months. In the past, the cases involved a combination of all three options, with cases reset and repeating steps with every new submission of case evidence.

With the first of the three new appeals processes, veterans can file a supplemental claim where they introduce new evidence in support of their case. The appeal is handled by specialists at a regional office, who make a final decision.

The second option allows veterans to request their cases be reviewed by a senior claim adjudicator, instead of the regional office. Those reviews are for clear errors or mistaken interpretations of a statute. If they find mistakes, they can require corrections for the cases.

The third option allows veterans to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Those cases are anticipated to take the longest to process, due to the legal prep work. Veterans can obtain a direct decision or request a hearing before the board.

Veterans with cases currently pending in the system, can opt to go with the new processes or stay with the current system, if they think it will be better for them.

Reference: Military Times (January 22, 2019) “VA’s benefits appeals process will see a dramatic changeover next month”

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Why is Estate Planning so Important for Cancer Patients?

We’ve said that estate planning is important for everyone. However, it can be especially important for cancer patients. While some believe estate planning is only for the wealthy, that’s not the case: it’s an important part of everyone’s overall financial and legal strategy.

The Santa Maria Times’ recent article on this subject asks, “What is the importance of estate planning, advance health care directives?” As the article explains, estate planning is just having a plan in place that addresses how you’d like to see your estate—including assets, pensions, real estate, and more—distributed, in the event of incapacitation or death.

First, you should create the necessary legal documents and a clear financial plan. A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event for the patient and her family. A significant component of getting and staying healthy is eliminating stress. From the moment you first receive the diagnosis, there are critical decisions that must be made on a regular basis. Estate planning can help to decrease much of that stress.

Even if you set up your estate planning years ago, your documents should be reviewed periodically, especially after a life-changing event like a cancer diagnosis.

Another important document is the Five Wishes Living Will. This document states your personal, emotional, and spiritual needs—along with your medical wishes. Originally created by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging and experts in end-of-life care, this document lets you specify your wishes, if you become seriously ill. It can be a real gift for those you love.

Your complete estate plan may include the following:

  • A medical power of attorney and advance directives to physicians that designate a trusted person to speak for you, if you are unable to do so, even temporarily;
  • A written document specifying your wishes about medical care and treatment;
  • A review of all assets, including retirement accounts, investments, or bank accounts;
  • A power of attorney for financial decisions; and
  • A list of instructions and organizing information, so you can focus on recovery.

With an estate plan in place, along with careful planning and support, a cancer patient can achieve a feeling of well-being, even while confronting this life-threatening illness.

Reference: Santa Maria Times (February 18, 2019) “What is the importance of estate planning, advance health care directives?”

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What Should My Fiancé and I Discuss About Finances Before We Say “I Do”?

If you’re older and remarry, you may have more assets and you probably have children. That’s different than a first marriage, where people often enter as financial equals. In subsequent unions, situations are more complicated—and the stakes are higher. You should protect your money in the event of divorce and protect your children in the event of your death.

Barron’s recent article, “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying,” says the subject of money should be easier this time around. Money talk might have been taboo going into your first marriage, but experience—and the battle wounds of divorce—tend to make this dialog much easier.

The best strategy for navigating the financial side of remarriage is to be direct and give yourself plenty of time before the wedding to work out the details. All good financial plans start with a broader discussion that has more to do with identifying and setting goals, than it does about dollar signs.

Consider what you hope to achieve individually and as a couple over the next year, five years, decade, and so on. Discuss your priorities and intentions, be specific, and write it all down. Your conversation will be the groundwork for the specific financial planning decisions the two of you will need to make, when it’s time to formalize your plans for merging finances or—as the case may be—keeping them separate.

Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” are becoming more frequently used by millennials because they are marrying later and bringing more assets and debt to the marriage. In the case of remarriage, a prenup should be strongly considered by most couples. This legally-binding agreement details how assets and liabilities will be divided, in the event of divorce.

Many experts suggest keeping separate checking, savings, and investment accounts—but setting up joint accounts for shared lifestyle expenses. Having a joint account removes the need for constant discussion about how you’ll divide expenses. Create a monthly joint budget and agree on the fairest way to split it. Some couples divide it down the middle, while others base it on a percentage of their respective incomes.

You don’t need to have all of your estate plans settled before the wedding but be certain to update key documents where appropriate—such as your wills, medical advance directives, retirement plan and insurance beneficiaries.

A big trouble spot for couples remarrying—especially if there are children and grandchildren from other marriages—is how assets will be divided in the future. Without a clear estate plan, if you die first, then the assets will pass to your spouse and then to that spouse’s children. That can be a big source of family strife—even for families who aren’t wealthy. A good solution is to set up revocable livings trusts that say exactly how you want your respective and joint assets to be distributed when you die.

Reference: Barron’s (March 2, 2019) “How to Manage Your Money When You’re Remarrying”

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